The Death of Living Pictures

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By Trisha Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief
Graphic by Daniella Mazzio

“I heard the Pageant of the Masters is pretty cool theatre thing,” my brother said to me as I tried to pack my Californian trip with as much activity as possible. Disneyland, the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, and apparently something called the Pageant of the Masters was going to be my final hurrah for summer vacation.

As I dressed up for an evening for what the website guaranteed to be “one of the unique productions in the entire world,” I was not prepared for how distinctly unique the performance would truly be. Later that night I was all dolled up and arrived at the pageant, with its large, open-air theatre that contained various mini stages covered in thick, traditional red curtains. Once within the sprawling theatre and the binocular rentals for eight dollars a pop, I started to think that my brother might have a loose definition of what a cool theatre thing is.

Throughout the show, the lights would go down momentarily while everyone in the audience would wildly speculate when the curtains would open. Once they did, it revealed a large picture frame that held what appeared to be classic paintings as seen in the museums, only we all knew they had to be slightly askew in some way since they were not the original pieces but instead a reproduction with stagecraft and Laguna Beach inhabitants. As if we were schoolchildren, a narrator would spout some history of the piece that they were portraying. In this particular show, it was all about famous partners or Dynamo duos complete with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Sancho and Don Quixote, and Lewis and Clark as they appeared in various works of art. The purpose was to tell the story of “compelling collaborations that led to the creation of unforgettable artworks.”

As I watched, I casually perused my program and learned that The Pageant of the Masters is a performance group that puts on a festival every year, presenting various living pictures in Laguna Beach, California. “Theatre” may not have been my initial description of the event but there was something inherently theatrical in people dressed up to look as if they were paintings, with the genuine make-up, props, and scenery to truly disguise themselves in front of a live audience. When the lights turned on to indicate intermission, my mom turned to me and asked, “So, are they real people or not?” We determined that we should have rented some binoculars.

As the second act progressed, I could not help but think of this as an archaic form of art. Living pictures, or tableaux vivants, were a popular form of expression from the 1830s to the 1920s when they fell out of favor for newer, flashier performances. They first became popular among the Victorians who used living pictures as a parlor game to entertain themselves. When the practice traveled to the United States, it could often be seen in Vaudeville performances as one of the most popular act types.

Soon people discovered that it could be used for a new, political purpose as a form of protest. Suffragettes posed like Raphael’s Madonna and Jules Bastion-Lepage’s Joan Of Arc to make a statement about their right to vote. In 1913, textile workers protested for humane working conditions by putting on a pageant in Madison Square Garden. W.E.B Dubois also directed a pageant called The Star Of Ethiopia that was created to show the political developments from the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation fifty years ago. Calling for a cast of between 350-1,000, this six-part pageant was meant to educate African-Americans on their history spanning from ancient Egypt to the American Civil War. Dubois’ production had a political purpose and made a clear impact on the world around him. The education on an often ignored subject which contains many implications on American society is a feat that Dubois was brave enough to fight for with his living picture pageant.

Where has this history left the modern tableaux vivants? Unfortunately, the state of living pictures has not remained as a form of political movement but has returned to its original form as a trite, evening entertainment, like the show that I was seeing before me. The last remaining consistent production of this once popular form is the aforementioned Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. This particular performance began in 1935 as a way for the artists in Laguna to draw crowds from the Olympics that were going on in Los Angeles at the time.

Walking through Laguna Beach, it is clear that this performance is a town favorite as in the following days, it was a point of conversation for almost everyone that I ran into. I was informed that it sells out its fifty performances every year and is making a profit of $1 million. This is regardless of the fact that the nature of the performance has not evolved in any way from the 1930s. It remains an event put on by town volunteers who dedicate countless hours to the effort, representing the same type of paintings, and lasts two and a half hours with people standing still while an audience oohs and aahs.

Though this performance is incredibly popular with the people of Laguna, it has also gained acclaim from numerous other places.This pageant draws a steady international as well as celebrity crowd. I was ecstatic to learn that the humorous Jane Lynch would be hosting the performance I attended and that I was frequenting the same institution as the star of Leave It to Beaver.

As I watched the Pageant, I simply could not comprehend the fame that it has attained as an art form that has become progressively less effective at storytelling. Unlike the political pageants of the 1910s and ‘20s, this pageant was more reminiscent of the parlor games that the wealthy aristocrats participated in. While passing the binoculars between each other, the audience in Laguna seemed to quietly compete with each other as to who could beat the announcer to be the first to name a piece, introduce the artist’s name, or finish the sentence of a fun fact.

What was lacking from the audience and the spectacle on the stage was any reason for the purpose of the art that was created. The announcer, though always including the artist’s marital status, how the love interests met, and the difficulties that arose in their relationship, failed to inform the audience of any importance that these pieces may have had in their time. Discussions of Diego Rivera’s artwork strayed away from the statements he was making about the 1910 Mexican Revolution that were displayed in his artwork, and instead focused on the true love that he shared with Frida Kahlo, his wife. When presented with an opportunity to open an avenue for discussion, the Pageant of the Masters seemed to ignore it for a comfortable story of feel-good emotions.

Though even this could be understood, as the pageant’s supposed purpose was to talk about great partners through history and art, if that had been accomplished. Unfortunately, there were even discrepancies within this category. A large section of the evening was devoted to classic movie posters with which they used the opportunity to speak of the great partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. While the great accomplishments of Fred Astaire were espoused for a solid ten minutes, the first and only mention of Ginger Rogers’ accomplishments were that she provided the “sex appeal”.

A similar transgression was when a series of portraits of Lewis, Clarke, and Sacagewa was displayed. The announcer provided a long interlude of the brotherhood between Lewis and Clarke, and then discussed how if they hadn’t chosen the right path to take in a crucial moment on their journey, they would have died and the history of America would be forever changed. There was not a single mention of the woman who was their guide and was portrayed in the portrait as pointing the right way.

If all of the partnerships in the presentations could not be properly explained, then what was the purpose of the evening? As a fundraiser to bring attention to local artists, the pageant as a whole did very little to explain what the importance of art is in our world and instead focused on the gossip of those who have been long dead. It seems that the fundraiser’s content should in some way reflect the hard work of the artists that it intends to promote.

Perhaps the future pageants could take a page from Dubois’s book and refocus their extreme talents on educating the public on topics that they are not able to recite by heart. The town of Laguna Beach in California is known for its high population of artists; it is part of the reason why the Pageant of the Masters has never faded from the public’s popular opinion. However, it seems time that the Pageant of the Masters learn that not all of art is meant solely as a wall decoration but the best art has a deeper meaning that can transcend time.

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